Skidding on the banana peel of literary judgment

Goodreads is driving me banana. (After misspeaking recently, I decided “going banana” sounds significantly crazier than the plural.) I resolved to keep better track of what I read, both out of curiosity and because my memory is really not sharp enough for those year-in-review pieces I get asked to write. (Alternately, somebody suggested LibraryThing, but I’d had a brief flirtation with Goodreads before, so I decided to have one more go at a familiar system.) But in logging books, you rate them, and I have a feeling I’m doing this ALL WRONG. That is, I’m saving five stars for the books that move or dazzle me memorably, the books I’ll keep coming back to. That criterion is idiosyncratic: the Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson would be a no-brainer for many, but When the Water Came by Cynthia Hogue and Rebecca Ross is also up in that stratosphere for me, both because those interview-poems are so affecting and because reading them launched a new interest in documentary poetics. The latter changed the direction of my thinking; I understand it might not change yours. In the meantime, I’m giving Mary Szybist’s National Book Award-winning Incarnadine four stars, because it’s merely a really, really good collection. Some of the poems are amazing, but like all collections of disparate works, the book’s a little uneven (so is Dickinson, to be fair). I see why those smart judges admired Incarnadine, that is, but it did not shake my world. The banana segment of this personally reasonable reaction is that nobody knows my weird criteria, so in rating books this way I’m liable to offend a lot of author-acquaintances. Besides, poetry needs all the boosterism it can get, right? Even if you say, no, it needs critical judgment in this age of grade inflation, what good does one tiny star-clicker do in the scheme of things, anyway, with her fine discriminations?

I find myself considering questions of evaluation in the classroom, too, and not just in grading undergraduate essays (once I could have written an angsty post about grading, but after a few thousand tries I find myself pretty relaxed about it). “What’s good about this?” is a typical question in creative writing workshops, but in literature classes we more often ask “how does this work?” or “what kind of poem is this?” or “how does this fit in a chain of influence/ reaction?” Certain kinds of literature classes do invite literary judgment, especially courses that stretch or challenge the canon in some way. And we make those private pronouncements all the time: this famous author is amazing; that one does not float my banana boat. Still, when a grumpy student complains about some text on the syllabus, I’m likely to reply that we’ll have a better conversation if we start with the assumption it’s worth reading. “What’s interesting about this?” is usually a more productive prompt than “Is this any good?” It’s rooted in a better stance towards the universe. Snarkiness has its own dark delights, but aren’t curious, open-minded, open-hearted people just more fun? Don’t you know someone whose eternal enthusiasm, whose assumption that everything and everyone is fascinating, make him or her a delight to spend time with?

Yet I found myself having a little temper-tantrum last Friday. I’m teaching Twenty-First Century Poetry, focusing the readings on lost, damaged, or imaginary places. For the first few weeks, I’m revisiting a unit I did once before on poetry after Hurricane Katrina (I blogged a bit about it two years ago). We began with When the Water Came, some clips from Spike Lee’s amazing documentary When the Levees Broke, and readings about documentary poetics. Then, before moving onto some related poems I admire by Nicole Cooley and Patricia Smith, I taught the controversy about Raymond McDaniel’s prize-winning book Saltwater Empire. An essay by Abe Louise Young and a rather indirect retort by McDaniel give more information, but in brief, McDaniel built a series of collage poems out of survivor testimonies from the Alive in Truth web site (which has been taken down since). He did not seek permission to quote the materials, as the site directed him to do, but he did put a tiny little acknowledgement on the copyright page (not in the Notes section, weirdly). My class read just part of the series, collectively titled “Convention Centers of the New World,” and compared it to another poem from the same book, “This Is a Recording,” which does sample a Bo Diddley song but seems to represent something more like a personal experience of listening to music in some lonely southern darkness.

We had lively conversations about ethics versus aesthetics: of course writers are always transforming other sources, but is there a bright line somewhere designating kinds of appropriation that are just wrong? The college I teach at has a strong honor system, so not surprisingly, some students argued that McDaniel’s poems simply constitute plagiarism. Others found them beautiful and powerful, and suggested the quality of the art could mitigate his failure to seek the appropriate permission.

Truly, strong differences of opinion are great in a classroom, and I’m glad to have made space for them. And I see why people find McDaniel’s poems beautiful and powerful. Yet even if it were possible to put aside the ethical problems, McDaniel’s poststructuralist justifications drive me banana. Yes, yes, we and our voices are fragmented and multiple, but this is an academic piety I’ve grown up with and I’m bored of it. Poetry is an art of implication, of mysterious and not-quite-tameable resonance, and yet I’m no fan of the fashionable jumpy, extremely anti-narrative mode (well, except for the very very best stuff). It strikes me as lazy.  I want to shout: “Do the work! Make the connections, or at least give me enough hints that I can do it! Know what your own damn poem is ABOUT!” And, um, I kind of did in class, although I wasn’t very shouty.

So there I was, potentially closing down interesting dissent with my own strong internal rating system, and only two weeks into the term, no less. It seemed unwise to me, but I feel so fiercely about the whole business–I take poetry personally, and I think others should, too. The lone banana, split. It’s a fabulous group of students, though, so I suspect they’ll bounce back with their own fierce age-of-Google opinions and puree me.

Poetry resolutions with a side of black-eyed peas

Every New Year’s Day, after the hoppin’ john, my family of four pulls out a box that gets packed away annually with the Christmas ornaments. It contains lists we’ve been keeping since before our kids, now 13 and 16, could write. We reread them, laughing or chagrined or occasionally pleased, before drafting a new list for the following year. Some highlights in various hands: “Get better at drawing robots.” “Be good so I get a hamster.” “Unlock every single guy on Super Smash Bros.” “Schmooze at AWP.” “Remind whole family to floss regularly.” “Floss no more than 20 times in next 2 years.” “Don’t let Mom make me floss.”

I’m always appalled by how my yearly vows to eat less and exercise more don’t do a lick of good. I should take a lesson from my most successful resolution ever, which was doable and specific: if there are four flights or fewer and I’m not carrying something very heavy, I take the stairs (conserving fossil fuels, spending my own stockpile). A series of resolutions did make my diet healthier—higher in veggies, limited in fats and sugars—plus, having discovered dairy and corn allergies several years ago, I can’t eat most processed foods. Still, like many middle-aged people, I grow a little jollier-looking ever year. Remember when you were twenty, and all you had to do was swear off midnight cheeseburgers and the pounds just melted away?

We’ll see what I write on that slip of paper tonight about diet, exercise, and drawing robots. Here, in the meantime, are my literary resolutions for 2014.

1. Maintain a list of every book I read so when I get those end-of-year “Best of 2014” requests, I can remember favorites from before October.

2. Read at least some of every poetry volume that gets shortlisted for the major post-publication prizes, THAT YEAR, instead of discovering five years later, “oh, that really WAS good!” I’ve asked my library to order them, which should help.

3. Persist in seeking publication for poems and essays, and especially for the new poetry ms, Radioland, despite clerical tedium, existential crises, etc.

4. Draft the middle third of Taking Poetry Personally, or Poetry’s Possible Worlds (title in flux)—this critical-memoirish thing I’m writing, and which I just reread the first third of, and which I immodestly think is kind of exciting.

5. Apply for an NEA, because what the hell.

6. Revise ruthlessly and decisively.

7. Remember my priorities. It’s good to help other people and hard to say no, but I need to be better about directing my not-unlimited energy at the projects that seem most urgent. I have a plan, as far as writing is susceptible to plans anyway, but I’m constantly letting it get sidelined.

As I drafted this I saw a similar post from January Gill O’Neill and liked her list better than mine. “Have a vision” is basically like “Remember my priorities,” but I need some version of her “Ditch what’s not working.” That’s hard for me, letting hours or days or weeks of work result in nothing, even harder than the submission-rejection wheel of pain.[1] Easier, though, than flossing.

 

[1] Unintended pun. I’m Wheeler, and I work in Payne Hall. Hmm.

Remembering, foreseeing, and missing the Pacific

Three years ago, the flurry of Christmas was eclipsed by a blizzard of planning for a Fulbright fellowship. In January 2011, Chris, Madeleine, Cameron, and I departed for Wellington, New Zealand for nearly six bracing, gusty, exhilarating months. We arrived at our Cuba Street hotel on an overcast summer day. My photo album also documents the rain that came sheeting down shortly after, and, when we relocated to Nelson for a few beach days, a rainbow manifesting over the sea (only one visible here, but there were two—that year we became almost blase about rainbows). Nelson rainbow

When I look at those images now, I can’t believe how young the kids seem: my son was only shoulder-height and now he’s nearly as tall as I am, big and noisy enough to play the tenor sax. In poetry-time, though, the seasons are longer. The poems I drafted in the southern hemisphere, revised in the months after my return, and started sending out late in 2011 are just beginning to see publication. The sonnet crown that recently appeared in Valparaiso Poetry Review, “Damages,” took ages to get right (and maybe still needs tweaks, time will tell). Although the basic shape of it crystallized quickly and I read a section on Radio New Zealand during my stay in Wellington, there were blurry patches for a long time I couldn’t quite bring into focus: a single vague or clunky phrase can scuttle an entire poetry sequence, especially if it occurs early on so the reader loses confidence in your control. “Damages” is also the sort of outcome you can’t predict when you’re writing a grant proposal: “While watching a major national crisis unfold in the background, I will obsessively ponder the sudden, painful dissolution of my parents’ 45-year marriage.” This crown is a slant-rhymed companion to the prose piece that appeared in The Gettysburg Review and Poetry Daily, “Coffee with Poets in New Zealand,” itself an alternate-universe answer to the research I was undertaking (and don’t even get me started on the incubation period for scholarly publication).

The pace isn’t always glacial. A couple of other poems inspired by that trip appeared more quickly in print magazines. “In Other News” was taken by Poet Lore. “Inside the Bright,” formally modeled on Marianne Moore’s “The Fish” and responding to a visit to Kauai on the way home, was published by Subtropics. These pieces may or may not hold their ground in a book-length poetry manuscript, Radioland, I’m beginning to shop around to presses—an alarming amount of what I write never makes the magazine cut, and a lot of my journal publications get shut out of my books. The latter have to be really lean and limber to survive the current market. At any rate, the current version of Radioland begins with the New Zealand material and ends with poems from winter 2012-3, a season of more travel and slowly processing my father’s death, even as we rebuilt a large part of our house after catastrophic flooding. Expect my output for the next few years to be extremely damp, metaphorically.

Meanwhile, here are a couple more Aotearoan poems in the new Unsplendid. “Things That Move Forward” is based on an incident on a walking trail near our Virginia home, but I first drafted it during a workshop I ran for the New Zealand Poetry Society that culminated in terza-rima-writing (the goodhumored participants promptly rechristened the form “torture rima,” which sounds funnier in a kiwi accent). “It Is Difficult to Get the News from Poems” quotes the extremely American William Carlos Williams in the title, but otherwise responds to a powerful event I attended right after the Christchurch quake (the next day, I think). The poet who counts tuatara at the beginning is Harry Ricketts, whose comments on local species of sonnet in 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry inspired my couplets. The poet whose understated reading moved me so much is Bill Manhire.

The other two selections in Unsplendid came later. “Past Meridian” was my first try at a fourteen-word sonnet in spring 2012—I remember because I drafted a poem a day that April and kept them together in a single folder. “Belief,” a random eruption from no occasion I can recall, is the poem Unsplendid’s editors have kindly nominated for a Pushcart. I’m so grateful to the editors of all these magazines for working so hard to bring poems to a world that doesn’t know it needs them. And grateful, too, to the Fulbright Foundation for granting me those wild, windy months. Everyone in my family was transformed by the undertaking.

Still, I hope the dramas of 2014 are more comic than the rather-too-epic adventures of the last few years. I can foresee some of them: we’re planning a couple of weeks in France in June, and touring universities in April and August. Madeleine will be a high school senior in September, biting her fingernails over SAT scores and applications. I’ve agreed to serve as interim department head in 2014-5 while the current chair takes a sabbatical, and I’ll be applying for a leave of my own in 2015-6 (here in Virginia, I think, given that I’ll likely be the cash-strapped parent of a first-year college student). While we all miss the climatically unpredictable Pacific, here’s to mild weather for all of us in the new year.

Adventures in poetry teaching, part two: Gaileyland!

In psychology, it’s called “literary transportation,” although you may know the phenomenon by the metaphor “getting lost in a book.” Immersive readers do this all the time. We become so absorbed by a story that we forget we’re tracking lines of print. Physically, you’re sitting in an easy chair by the window, in a cozy room. Imaginatively, you’re shivering in a wintry landscape with a compelling character, half-visualizing the dark verticals of tree trunks glazed with ice. Your actual heart rate climbs when a faint, thin wolf howl rises in the literary distance.

Although I earned a PhD by treating poems in the usual ways—as Billy Collins alleges, you tie them up and begin the cross-examination—I’m fascinated by other ways books become meaningful to us, and hence I keep concocting peculiar assignments for my literature students. A few days ago I posted about some students’ translations of modernist poetry into other media (“Dancing to Loy”). My other class this term was a first-year composition course on the topic of speculative fiction. All fall they’ve been learning about developing arguments, reasoning through evidence, and handling that wild beast, the semicolon. They’ve been perpetrating all this critical prose about science fiction and fantasy: comparing Terry Bisson’s eerie “Bears Discover Fire,” for example, to Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists”; or looking for what Tolkien calls the “eucatastrophe” in tales by Kij Johnson or Octavia Butler; or juxtaposing Grimm and Gaiman.

We wrangled with speculative poetry, too. They just completed final projects inspired by Jeannine Hall Gailey’s first collection, Becoming the Villainess. First we read and discussed the book, with a visit-by-Skype from the generous poet. Then we began to take that “literary transportation” business seriously. We read Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland, a treatise about genre brilliantly disguised as a satirical travel handbook. Lonely Planet author and W&L alum Amy Balfour visited class to discuss real travel writing: how she pitches projects and receives assignment, the lengths of essays and how she structures them, the words she uses and the stock phrases she avoids. I also brought in piles of old travel manuals and we skimmed them for style and structure, then brainstormed. Reread Gailey’s book, I said, as a set of clues about a real place. What can you glean from the poems about the climate of Gaileyland, or the dining options, or the major attractions?

Everyone had to devise an entry and, with the help of our digital services guru Brandon Bucy, upload it to a joint WordPress site. Then the students chose different follow-up projects: some wrote analytical essays about Gailey’s verse; some wrote fantastic poems and tales accompanied by critical statements; and three volunteered to edit, expand, and redesign our collaborative web venture, Gaileyland: A Travel Guide to Becoming the Villainess. The result is a very strange and funny species of literary criticism. These students had to trace and analyze patterns of language and reference just as they would for an essay, but in a different style and very much in public. If there’s an implicit argument about the text in their project, it might involve Gaileyland’s essential darkness. The poems are rooted in trauma, although becoming a villainess is one way to seize back power from a world that would constrict a woman’s options and mute her dissent. All the weirder, then, to address poems about Persephone and Cinderella and Dark Phoenix in the perpetually sunny prose of tourism-boosting: eat at Philomel’s Athenian Restaurant! “Locals whisper that once the cook served human meat in a stew, but we think that’s just myth.”

I love the results and find it so gratifying to hereby celebrate the intelligence and creativity of my students, especially right now. It’s been a rough week at my home institution: very early last Tuesday morning, a car carrying ten students on their way back from an off-campus party crashed. A young woman in her senior year died and others were badly injured. The rest I don’t know for sure, but credible rumors involve an intoxicated driver who had already made multiple runs, returning partygoers to campus. All that vitality, lost or hurt. The latest wave of sorrow about it hit me as I was decorating the Christmas tree with my own teenagers yesterday, noting who was sentimental about what ornament, thinking that when each kid has a home of his or her own, I’ll pack up the little santas and boats and shells and kindergarten photo-crafts for them to put on their own trees. Then I freaked my family out by bursting into noisy tears, thinking about the idle plans we make all the time, and how for one set of parents, that whole speculative future is just gone.

Really, all assignments and grading are trivial in the end, though sometimes they add up to helping people learn a little. But writing and reading are important ways of seeking illumination and consolation. So are sharing them in good company: if you’re in Rockbridge tonight, and not too upset by today’s memorial service, come hear a bunch of area writers read at the Studio Eleven Gallery at 11. S. Jefferson Street in Lexington at 7 p.m. We’ll be collecting nonperishable goods and monetary donations for the local food bank. And sharing what moves us with others, and being moved—more nontrivial activities that need to keep happening in and beyond the just-slightly-magical space of the classroom.

Dancing to Loy: teaching modernist poetry and performance

This is the moment in the term when some of my craziest teaching experiments come to fruition (or wither pathetically on the vine). I always assign something fun or peculiar in the last week or two of the semester, in part to combat exhaustion as everyone faces down final papers and exams, and in part to make room for other ways of thinking through literary works. Analytical writing is important: by reasoning through ambiguous texts and bolstering claims with well-judged evidence, students exercise intellectual skills that can make them better writers, citizens, moviegoers, you name it. Analysis, though is far from the only way to come to terms with a poem. Some of us like to puzzle over how literature works, but analysis isn’t the foremost pleasure for most readers, I think. Many of us, for example, get most excited about literature when it provokes us to personal introspection or artistic imitation. Why shouldn’t those modes of response get some classroom time? Don’t we learn from them, too?

So this week, students in my upper-level undergraduate course on American poetry from 1900-1950 had to assemble into small groups and figure out some way to perform a poem that wasn’t on the syllabus. Some of them created videopoems inspired by Lorine Niedecker’s “My Life by Water.” Here’s a video response by Eleanor, Sam, and Kellie to Gertrude Stein’s “Sacred Emily,” with each of 370 lines represented by a single image flashing by quickly:

Another group provided a theatrical interpretation of Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago.” Here are Ben, Katie L., and Johnson before they smeared dirt on their faces and climbed on the furniture. Sandburg

Did you know Mina Loy designed lamps? So did Annie, Taylor, and Katie T., in response to her poem “The Widow’s Jazz.” With dramatic flair, they plugged their lamp in mid-reading, transforming an apparent blank spot in the shade into a sort of magic lantern illumination of Loy’s silhouette.

Loy lamp

By secret ballot, the class awarded “best performance” (and extra credit) to Amira, Danielle, and Caroline for their playful and insightful translation of a visual poem into an audiofile. Here’s their rendition of E.E. Cummings’ “rpophessgr.”


Another contender for the prize was a dance choreographed and performed by Alee, Alyssa, and Kiki, in response to Loy’s “Brancusi’s Golden Bird.”

I felt a little awed by the creativity and talent on display for what was, in essence, a minor homework assignment. And I’m fairly sure all these students understand the poems now better than I do, from the inside out. They devised great programs for their performances, too. Rather than including them all here, I’ll conclude with photographic testimony from Johnson, Katie L., and Ben, to the desperate intellectual seriousness of their artistic collaboration. Well, at least Katie looks serious. (P.S.: I really like my job.)collaboration

What I really read, and why, and what it means (Splinter Reviews Part 2)

High winds are plucking the last shriveled leaves off the branches while professional reading piles accumulate, isolating as snow-drifts: student papers, dossiers and writing samples from job applicants, scholarly mss I’ve promised to evaluate. At war with myself about whether I really need a Sunday off or a Sunday making a dent in it all, I decided to collect evidence from my Twitter account of what I’ve read and watched for fun since July. Some surprises: first, even when school’s in session, I read plenty of novels and feel no guilt about tossing off some half-baked remark about many of them. I’m actually less likely to tweet about a book that cuts deep—I reread Erdrich’s Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, for example, and it really impressed me, but that’s not in evidence here. Second, I’m less likely to tweet about poems. I read and liked Dean Young’s Falling Higher and Sally Rosen Kindred’s Darling Hands, Darling Tongue during the past few months, as well as revisiting older collections including Langston Hughes’ Montage of a Dream Deferred, but didn’t have pithy observations about them. Is poetry less susceptible to summation? Or am I just more loyal to its complexities? I also would have told you that I prefer full poetry collections to the fragments in magazines, but that’s not borne out by what I’ve actually done lately—I read a single-author volume a couple of times a month this fall, but absorbed much more poetry online, through anthologies, or via the journals I subscribe to. I know we all consume media in part by convenience and happenstance—watching the mediocre movie that plays locally rather than the great one featured in some Hip But Distant Metropolis—but I wonder about that gray area between laziness and actual preference. I don’t always like the things I’m supposed to like, but rooting out those prejudices and admitting what I actually personally enjoy in a piece of art can be surprisingly hard. I haven’t kept a proper journal in decades so Twitter-as-reading-diary actually turns out to be sort of revealing.

Poetry and nonfiction:

On Jean Valentine’s Break the Glass: hairline crack in a bowl of light but the light doesn’t leak away

From Quiver, Nat Anderson on sleep as her squeeze: “he turns that key so soft, I won’t know he’s come/ until he’s left me.”

& today’s other delight: the cranky connoisseurship of Fry’s Ode Less Travelled. He didn’t even have to write it for tenure!

If unpersuaded about deep links between EB Browning and Battlestar Galactica, check out the essays in Derek Furr’s Suite For Three Voices

Sf and adjacent territories:

No sf in Karen Joy Fowler’s wonderful We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, but it is all sf: sneaking up on the unknowable

Jo Walton’s Sulien walks in god-haunted woods between familiar versions of the world. I mean, she REALLY does.

Jo Walton’s Among Others made me wonder if I’ve been practicing magic for years. It’s brill.

Want to visit 2312‘s version of post-global-warming NYC and float along canals between skyscrapers #sfvacationdestination

Traversed @GrahamJoycebook‘s weird alt-world Silent Land through weird alt-world of headphones. Ears still feel packed with snow

@EmilyCroyBarker‘s #RealMagic, a scholar finds a portal. Turns out ice demons really like WC Williams, but Ashbery, not so much

What woke me up about #DoctorSleep is the poetry: incantation, sure, but also Eliot, Auden, and a kickass poet-great-grandma

Movies:

The excellent Much Ado reminded me cynics (Beatrice) morally trump idealists (Claudio). Also made me envy @josswhedon’s beautiful house

#Gravity proves my mom right: it’s crucial to wear nice underwear on field trips because accidents do happen

For the theory behind these tweet-length assessments see “Reviews the Length of an Irritating Splinter.” For another kind of conversation about art we love and how it worms into our brains, go to the latest issue of Midway, scroll down, and see some works of visual art by Carolyn Capps and the poems I wrote in response to them. The real landscape at hand when I drafted them were the Virginia hills around the VCCA.

Cats, poems, Viking funerals

All unsuspecting, I was reading the Sunday paper in the sunny nook by our back door, looking out occasionally to admire the sky’s brilliant blue. Our cat, Flashlight, howled to be let in, but when you admit her she howls to go out again immediately, so I stalled and she wandered off. I should have been reading a hundred-plus job applications, having foolishly volunteered to head the department’s search committee, so the article about Lee Harvey Oswald absorbed me with improbable intensity.

The ordinary murmur of a car passing, then a thump, and I looked up to see a dark SUV speeding off. Suddenly I was on my feet, yelling for Chris. I’m not sure how, but he reached Flashlight before I did. I must have slowed down when I came close; she looked bad. He pulled a blanket from our station wagon and scooped her up. I grabbed keys and phone, told the kids what was happening, and hopped behind the steering wheel, Chris scooting awkwardly into the back seat with his arms full. I was sobbing and trying to drive and scan the phone book for the vet’s address at the same time, which even I began to realize was not smart, so I pulled over only two blocks from the house and said, “I don’t know where to go, Chris. It’s Sunday. Everywhere will be closed.” I called the vet to see what advice their phone message gave about emergencies. As I was writing down the number, he said, “She’s dead.” It had been fewer than five minutes.

In most ways, Chris and I respond differently to crises. He rushes in to be the grown-up, for one thing, and horror-struck, I let him. Today we both cried at the shock and the pity of it, but guilt kept twisting tears out of me, and for him it was anger at that driver who just kept going. Despite the differences, though, both of us began working frenetically. He covered up the worst injuries and invited the kids to pet her and say goodbye. He then dug a hole in the fiercely resistant red Virginia clay, not far from where we buried our old cat ten years ago. I put away Flashlight’s food and water bowls, disposed of the stained blanket, made lunch for the kids. He delivered a report to the police while I vacuumed like a demon. We each kept stopping to say how strange, how awful, and to see if the children wanted to talk or be hugged. Only an hour had passed.

I started an elaborate dinner of barbecued ribs, October beans, broccoli rabe, and biscuits. He tried to finish his emails and call his mom and then decided a run was a better idea: what a warm golden day, with a high breeze. I read five applications and thought all the candidates seemed like wonderful people, most not suited for the position but surely they deserve a chance…then abandoned Interfolio, melted chocolate chips into almond butter, and spread the salty goo on chunks of banana. And now, of course, I’m writing, because books, food, and putting sentences together are my main consolation for any hurt.

I don’t want poetry today. I’ve never yet wanted to read a poem at a funeral, though there are distinctly unpoetic things I’ve wanted to say, sometimes. Poems bring order to pain, and who wants tidiness just then, in the middle of those first, blurry minutes and hours and days? On the other hand, isn’t that why I started cleaning house, to make order through fidgety effort? Or is effort itself the key, because it prevents thinking?

Last night, Chris, my son, and I went to see Thor 2, which is more entertaining than the reviews would have you believe, although the plotting is horrendous.  I leaned over in the middle of a Viking funeral and whispered, “I’ve changed my mind. That’s the ceremony I want. Flaming ships.” On the way home, we reminisced about my slightly demented response to my father’s death. He had a brief and wildly inappropriate military send-off and while alternate closure seemed in order, there wasn’t an obvious religious solution, given his impiety and ours. So I looked into Norse ritual, drawing on his Swedish heritage, and gave Chris and the kids some colored paper and age-appropriate beverages. Each of us wrote messages to my father and folded the bright squares into boats. Finally, we gathered solemnly around the toilet, lit the little ships on fire, and set them on the water. When they dissolved into black ash, I flushed.

That felt ridiculous, and satisfying, and right. Of course, it wasn’t “closure.” I dream about my dad from time to time and continue to write about him. Each time I fold a line into a stanza, though, I’ve made something out of badness. I wish there weren’t such a large supply of badness in the world, but there it is. My mother called as I was drafting this with more news of illness and injury. There’s infinitely worse stuff out there, beyond the small pool of light my kitchen casts into November darkness. We’ll always have some grief to usher out to sea.

Poor Flashlight, wherever she is. May I have more patience with everyone’s craziness from here on in.  We all deserve more kindness.

Modernists Vs. Zombies, the Rematch

“J’accuse!” shouted our daughter last night. No, not really, but she did hold us sternly to account for misleading her. Our dinner table conversations had given her the impression that science fiction and fantasy were high-prestige literary modes. Now, in her junior year AP course, the most seriously literary English class of her life, she has learned this is not, in fact, true. Poor child, raised by evil spiders in a sticky web of lies.

It’s that pre-Halloween grading-like-a-demon season—what northern hemisphere English professor has time to blog, excepting my insanely prolific spouse, who dragged me to Carrie for a Saturday night study break? Still, I feel provoked enough by an article in this morning’s Chronicle of Higher Ed to jot a few words of protest over my leftover sweet potatoes. The author, Adam Brooke Davis, seems like a dedicated teacher who wants to do the best he can by his creative writing students. The comment section, while full of fascinating and very smart responses, also brims with the usual ad hominem attacks (“this is so stupid!” “no, YOU’RE stupid!”), and he doesn’t deserve them. Still, as a serious poet and a serious speculative fiction reader, I find “No More Zombies!” seriously depressing. Since the article is paywalled, here’s the opening: “I banned alt-worlding from my advanced creative-writing workshop. Told my students that their fiction had to take place in real environments with real people, facing problems that are actually likely to confront us (as opposed to stories involving international spy rings, penal colonies on Proxima Centauri, or aliens).” He goes on to describe the sf premises of a series of student stories, some of which sound hokey and some kind of interesting. He then laments their reading practices:

“On their own, students were reading The Hunger Games, Twilight, and World War Z, and most of their experience of narrative came from time-constrained, market-determined, sponsor-vetted, focus-group-tested, and committee-created television and movies. I tried to provide some other models, including contemporary writers like Annie Proulx, Ha Jin, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Louise Erdrich, Alice Walker, and Raymond Carver.”

He doesn’t say so explicitly, but this list strongly implies he knows full well that the best contemporary literary fiction is full of ghosts, mutants, dystopian futures, and gothic horror. (Come to think of it, what is my daughter reading for that English class? Morrison’s revenant tale of undead American history, Beloved.) Strong writing can address any kind of story in any milieu; it just requires skill and understanding of the precedents, qualities a good workshop can cultivate in any student who is willing to work hard and read widely.

The sentence that drives a stake through my heart, though, is Davis’ assertion that “I gamely acknowledged the potential for allegorical treatment but tried steering the class toward the real world—what people want, what obstacles they face, that sort of thing.” What a reductive way of reading, and what a narrow way of understanding what’s real! I’m right now preparing to teach a wonderful essay by Ursula K. Le Guin called “The Critics, The Monsters, and the Fantasists,” in which she argues, “true fantasy is not allegory.” I’m not sure what Davis is getting at near the end of his piece when he alludes to the “purposes” of writing, but as Le Guin insists, books are not tracts. “Relevance,” one of those values realism is supposed to achieve, doesn’t equate to literary power, but even using that benchmark, I can testify that alt-world tales, when they’re very good, can be at least as relevant to our lives as realism. I admire Faulkner, but Tolkien has been of more use in helping me consider what I want and what obstacles I face, to use Davis’ criteria. Fantasy’s engagement with the “pre-human and non-human,” as Le Guin puts it, is more ethically challenging to me than anything I’ve found in Fitzgerald or Hemingway—though I’ve taught their work often and love much of it, their visions do not alter how I live. Le Guin’s vision, however, sustains me.

I’m all for challenging students. Make ‘em read books they don’t like; give them assignments that feel unnatural. I love rhyme, but I’ve created temporary bans against chime when faced with rhyme-addicts in my workshops, just as I try to kick against my own poetic reflexes. And I wouldn’t object to a workshop teacher pointing out that our literary culture has a strong prejudice in favor of realism, and students should get to know this dominant mode, whatever they want to write eventually. Davis projects a sense, though, that realism is somehow the basic, fundamental thing, rather than a fashion from which genre fiction only diverged a few decades ago.

Of course, there are moments in Le Guin’s essay that rankle, too. “The modernists are to blame,” she tells us. “Academic professionalism is at stake—possibly tenure.” Well, yes, I’m a modernism scholar with tenure and I do see justice in Le Guin’s claim. But realism=academic, fantasy=populist is too simple a binary. As I keep saying, my modernist poets are actually pretty fantastic. Eliot, Frost, H.D. and others find poetic power to be essentially mysterious. No more zombies, no more “Waste Land.” If we can’t overthrow our own prejudices as teachers and really see the weirdness latent in the canon we love, how can we expect to open anyone else’s mind, either?

There, a 1000 word rant in a lunch hour. For more considered prose in which I contemplate my father’s likeness to T. Rex, see my recent essay in Verse Wisconsin, “The Dinosaurs Are Breeding.” If you’ll be near Fairmont, West Virginia this Saturday, too, I’ll be reading some poems at Heston Farm Winery from 2-4 with other Kestrel contributors. I’ll try for a selection that’s literary, serious, and not mundane at all, because man, you should see my email in-box. Life is realistic enough: bring on those magical elves.

Those awful middle-aged women

Somehow I keep finding myself perched on a table in front of a bunch of perky twenty-year-olds, stirring up a conversation about some dreadful woman in a poem or story who is too sexual, or even just too friendly, for being so damned old.

For a while, my avoidance of those conversations was quite skillful. I neatly sidestepped, for instance, the artist-collecting salonnière in Ezra Pound’s “Portrait d’une Femme”: I mentioned the modernist practice of staking one’s literary claims by tearing down some less than perfectly brilliant not-young female person, quoted the bit in “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly” about the “old bitch gone in the teeth,” and moved on. After all, that was our first session on international modernism, so there was “A Retrospect” to discuss, and “In a Station of the Metro,” and “A Pact,” and those translations based on Fenollosa… Having managed this clever escape from my poetry students, I landed in a composition class for which we’d read the Grimm version of “Snow-White” and various contemporary revisions. Uh-oh. I had some ideas about whiteness to throw around, especially given Neil Gaiman’s wonderfully disturbing retake in “Snow, Glass, Apples,” but we couldn’t evade that persistent stepmother (or mother in the earliest versions), driven by an unholy desire to remain beautiful when she should be ceding her place in the spotlight. How does the original differ from the Disney version? I asked, so we proceeded to the gruesome ending in which the stepmother is shoehorned into red-hot iron footwear and forced to dance herself to death. Yes, we agreed, she wanted to be a spectacle of gorgeousness, and according to fairy-tale logic she’s punished by this grotesque-mirror version of being the belle at the ball. Feeling myself the center of all eyes in the room, I shifted uncomfortably. The subtext became even more glaring when we moved to Anne Sheldon’s poem, “Snow White Turns 39.” One of the students proposed, reasonably enough, that the final line could suggest a death-wish. Aw, I lamented, having to admit he could be right—I wanted her to become empowered by smashing that mirror! They all laughed surprisingly hard, as if my plaint were extremely funny. I scowled at them suspiciously.

Yesterday, back to the poetry class. Assignment: Prufrock and Other Observations, which crackles with failed broadcasts between men and women. Sometimes a youngish speaker can’t quite manage cocktail chatter, as in the title poem, or romantic silence seems to authorize artistic creation, as in “La Figlia Che Piange.” Eliot’s “Portrait of a Lady,” though, brings that problem of the talky, lonely, desiring older woman to the forefront again. There I am, a middle-aged woman who just wants to talk about art, teaching a poem to college students that’s ABOUT a tiresome superannuated Juliet trapping a bored college student with her embarrassing speeches about how much she values his conversation about art. The speaker’s “self-possession gutters”—he feels moments of sympathy, guilt, self-doubt—but he ends up more or less fantasizing about her dying already. Kind of a Mrs. Robinson situation, one student remarks.  I’m thinking: kind of like me.

Poems change on you from decade to decade—it matters who you are when you read them. Who you are also matters in the classroom. Long ago, a friend told me about teaching English in Japan. She asked her supervisor why her students were nearly all male. It had been arranged that way because sexual chemistry helps students learn, she was told. That assumption is wrong in so many ways—it assumes universal heterosexuality, for one thing—but it’s not entirely crazy to assume that the ages and sexes and characters of students and teachers affect their relationship. There is an emotional intensity to teaching. It’s appalling when teachers abuse their power and become sexually involved with students, but of course parties on both sides of any lectern have feelings about their interactions, ideally enjoying each other’s intellectual company very much. Literary people find literary conversation exciting. I’ve had many enduring friendships spring from the intimacies of teaching: who gets my English-nerd jokes better than the student who’s taken my classes, read all the same books, learned everything I think about the works that matter most to me, and mused with me about writing as twilight deepens past the office window?

So it gets to me now, when I see some version of myself in a text I’m teaching and she’s ridiculous. I’ve always had some privileges in the classroom. My mostly-white students don’t get angry or fall silent when I bring up race, for instance, because I’m white—some of my colleagues get much, much more resistance to that necessary topic. I also appreciate how aging has conferred authority, some of it earned, some of it just a side effect of looking more like my students’ mothers now than their sisters. I did have a senior undergraduate ask me on a date once, when I was his TA in grad school, and it was terrible—I should have explained seriously why I couldn’t say yes, but instead, assuming he must be mocking me, I laughed, and then his feelings were hurt and my chances of teaching him effectively for the rest of the term were pretty much blown. It’s a good thing to have achieved immunity from propositions!

I really don’t need to be the fairest in the land. In fact, it’s very clear from this vantage that I did my future self a big favor when in my cute-as-a-button twenties I staked my self-worth on intellect and art. But I would like to continue to be interesting to all kinds of people despite? because of? my literal and metaphorical gray hair and avoirdupois. I’m still the heroine of my own tale, ambitious as ever. More so.

If I ever write another fantasy story (I just found Joseph Harker’s review of the last one here, by the way), the protagonist will be female, on the better side of forty, and well-rounded in every sense—no adorable Narnian moppets, disenfranchised warrior sons, or thin fierce adolescents like Katniss. In the meantime, maybe I have a poem to write. Don’t worry, all you woman-leery hobbits out there: “Portrait of a Lady My Ass” is just a working title.

Moldy

Some good advice I received from Barrow Street editor Peter Covino about the manuscript of Heterotopia:  stop saying “I remember” so much. After all, he remarked—I’m sure I’m paraphrasing badly—isn’t “I remember” implicit in every poem? I received that comment with chagrined recognition. I’d even published a poem in my first book, Heathen, called “I Remember Last Weekend,” inspired by a friend describing his MFA classmates: their workshop submissions were often based on experiences about five minutes old, because they were, after all, mostly in their early twenties, and hadn’t had much tranquility for recollection yet. My snarky old title anticipated Peter’s suggestion and my subsequent revision program. I’d just forgotten.

This August, I found another bit of lost knowledge stashed and forgotten in a poem’s attic. I’d been having health problems all summer that were escalating from irritating to worrisome: heart palpitations, a persistent cough, and other weirdnesses that I’d been attributing to my increasing middle-aged decrepitude but, well, maybe not. A blood test suggested mold exposure. After I described last year’s flood and extensive renovations to an air quality expert, he said any mold probably wasn’t in the walls but in our old AC units. While I waited for him to come inspect the joint, I worked on old poems, and there it was, in a piece from several years back. I had used my inappropriately racing heart as a metaphor in some rickety ballad stanzas about the onset of summer. A click ensued: I’ve been having palpitations for ages, but only in the hottest months (and the least anxious ones for an academic, which should have tipped me off). When I sleep under a faint cool breeze from the moldy old AC units. Poem as medical history.

Poems can be wiser than their writers in far more significant ways than that. I’m teaching Robert Frost this week in a modern poetry class. He’s an example, surely, of a difficult human being, someone I might have disliked personally, whose poems nevertheless make the world a better place. It startled me, though, to reread his essay “The Figure a Poem Makes” and find such a mysterious description of the writing process there. A poem “inclines to the impulse,” he writes, “runs a course of lucky events,” and lands somewhere the author could not have predicted. He muses about “the surprise of remembering something I did not know I knew.” I recognize this sense of wilderness hovering around the edges of his well-ordered verse—something there is that does not love an iamb. I’d just forgotten.

I suppose all the poets I’m teaching in “American Poetry from 1900-1950” are going to seem strange to me this term, because the second course I’m teaching, on alternate days, is a first-year seminar on speculative fiction. The tales and poems on the latter syllabus obsess over the questions, What’s real? What are the rules? That persistent uncertainty about big problems resonates in me and it’s going to carry over to everything I read. Besides, Millay, H.D., Williams, Hughes, and the rest of the modernist crowd are great enough that if a question’s on your mind, you can probably see an image of it flickering deep in their poetry’s mirror.

Their poems are dirty mirrors, too, speckled by age, the kind that make you look strange to yourself—and the more you know about authors and contexts, the more provocatively filthy the poems seem. Yes, that’s a positive fungus metaphor (my moldy poems will come after my moldy blog posts, because the former take longer to ferment, but expect the motif to propagate). I know my hundred-year-old house will never be entirely free of invisible spore. I presume the spore are present for good reasons, too, even though they got out of balance in my particular secret ducts. I’m not freaked out by their alien proliferation, though I wish I’d noticed the problem sooner, and that it didn’t cost such a fortune to remediate.

I also wish I could clean out the toxins in my workplace as easily. I’m freshly crushed, this September, by the radical reconfiguration of a department I worked so hard to culture. Several individuals moved along of their own accord, for perfectly good reasons, though I miss them; and a former administrator against whom I’d brought complaints, even testified in legal battles, was bumped down into our midst. I can’t be comfortable at department events anymore or even in the halls. No one who has power to remediate the situation cares enough to do so—the trouble I make about it, after all, is almost microscopically small. Conversely, no one does care knows how to clear out the poison.

I can breathe in the classroom, though, and if elements get out of balance there, I can address the disorder myself. The other healthy space is the page: reading and writing can be disturbing and hard as well as joyous, but they’re good occupations. It’s not that these environments are sealed off from the rest of the potentially toxic world—they’re distinctly permeable by everything from market pressures to the Syria crisis to anyone’s lousy mood—but they’re premised on values not evenly respected elsewhere. Reason, fairness, complexity. But the student who is checking her cellphone under the desk, you say, who is cursing, like A.J. Soprano, that “asshole Robert Frost”? I think I can keep even that kid invested in literature’s idealistic questions, but maybe I’m crazy. It’s probably the mold.